Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 2, 2013
It’s become increasingly clear even to the major players that indie games are no longer a tiny niche hobby, or a minor exception to the rule.
If you measure in terms of number of titles released, of course, the indie games outnumber those of the mainstream publishers by an overwhelming margin. I think you’d have to go back a long way (if ever) to find a time when this wasn’t the case, but today the ratio is bigger than ever, and people have actually heard about some of them. As I’ve often said, the war is over, and indie games won. I don’t know the actual numbers involved – I doubt the top ten indie game sales combined (excluding, perhaps, Minecraft) could match the revenue of a single AAA blockbuster in one year. Indies may not yet be the rule, but they are no longer a mere exception.
So now what?
One of the problems with a category growing so large is that fracturing is inevitable. There’s plenty of talk now about whether or not the term “indie” has outlived its usefulness, and there have neem calls to change our nomenclature so that only one subclass of what is now “indie” could actually lay claim to the title. The wondrously inclusive term might have made sense when indies were a niche outside the mainstream, the argument goes. But today, the sheer variety of what falls under that umbrella makes the term useless.
The thing is, this argument is not new. It was being repeated even before the term “indie” had gained any traction. Waaaay back in 2004, controversy erupted over the winner of the sixth annual Independent Games Festival, Savage: Battle for Newerth. With a development budget of $1.5 million from outside investment (NOT from mainstream publishers, so it was still arguably “indie”), in an era where that kind of money wasn’t too far below what would be considered a mainstream games’ development cost, it was able to outclass the competition by simply outspending them. This violated one of the basic reasons the term “indie” had been coined – to set a differentiation in the audiences’ minds to combat decades of industry marketing convincing them that quality was directly correlated to expensive production values.
It went deeper than just budgets. There were questions of what constituted a mainstream publisher. And whether or not “professional” indies (a stupid consideration, but it was in reference to AAA studios or former AAA developers) should be allowed to compete against the amateurs.
The problems haven’t changed today – other than becoming more prevalent. Technically, the big Kickstarter success stories are not very different from S2′s success with Savage. You have big-name AAA studios finding independent funding to the order of millions of dollars, making very professional games with full-time, experienced teams that are still, under most definitions of the term, “indie.”
Yet when my game Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath is released, made with a budget that is pocket change by comparison, I’ll be competing directly with Obsidian’s Project Eternity and InXile’s Wasteland 2. And some sixteen-year-old is going to be releasing an RPG made with almost literally pocket change to compete with me. Is it fair that we all have to compete with each other, all under the “indie” banner?
Maybe. Maybe not.
As I said, one major reason for the term – one which is still perfectly valid, if a lot fuzzier than it once was – is to level the playing field between major, big-budget studios and publishers and the smaller cousins. The separate category allows consumers to view indie games with a separate criteria than the big-budget AAA studios. It allows vendors and artists to offer separate licensing terms for mainstream studios versus “indies.” Is it fair that the big publishers and studios get a different set of rules than the indies? Maybe, maybe not. But when the deck is stacked against you from the get-go, you don’t have much choice but to change the rules of the game. What else are they supposed to do? Look at your latest income tax statements and offer you a price as a percentage of last year’s annual revenue? As if things weren’t complicated enough already.
Do we need to differentiate between “big” indie and “little” indie? Again, maybe, maybe not. It can be tough enough finding a clear, fully-acceptable definition for “indie” as it is, let alone trying to find dividing lines for sub-categories below that.
What constitutes a budget? If I can find a day job that would pay me $75k a year, and I donate a man-year of time to a game, does that mean the game had a budget of $75k? Or, if an “indie” team were to hire me full-time and pay all the required taxes, fees, and benefits associated with full-time employment, and even provided me with a desk and a computer for that year, it could easily cost them over $100k for that same job, so should that be $100k+ added to the “budget” for an indie game? Or do we count only the actual hard costs to the studio, and claim that their budget was $0?
The problem is that no matter what figure we use, the end result would theoretically be the same. If a bunch of us donated a combined effort of five man-years to a game, using our own professional tools and licenses to build it on a voluntary basis, would the budget be closer to “little indie” of $0 or “big indie” of a half-million?
And let’s say that we complete our voluntary, labor-of-love title exactly to our own specifications, with no outside influences. It’s completely indie, right? Just as we’re about to release it, Sony swoops in and offers to market and sponsor the game in exchange for a period of Playstation exclusivity. Does our game, which would have been completely “indie” one day, mysteriously convert to a non-indie status or some new subcategory of “indie” overnight because of this?
Should the term “indie” be abandoned now that it has finally achieved success? Has it become “sold out” because it has finally broken out of mere niche recognition?
Should a person who has ever participated in the development of a AAA game be forever banned from the “indie” categorization?
I’m not saying these questions cannot be answered, but I am suggesting that the answers are not easy.
One of the hallmarks of indie gaming for me has been the incredible variety – not just of the games, but of the developers themselves. I’ve always loved the inclusiveness of it – the incredibly broad tent encompassing dirt-cheap first-time hobby projects and slick, professional, products. Yes, it comes with some pretty major problems trying to make sense of it all. But the fact that it defied any easy definitions (in fact, it tends to rebel against such imposed boundaries) appeals to me. I like that “indie” defies easy definition.
Going back to my own situation – I’d love it if I could stack a ton of handicaps in my favor when people start comparing my upcoming game to those with budgets orders of magnitude above mine. I’ll certainly try. It’s what I do when I’m wearing my marketing hat.
But to me, as a gamer, what does it really matter? As a player, my desire is to have really awesome games to play. The indie revolution has done that. Small-budget indies with really cool ideas now have access to really high-quality engines – engines capable of full-on, AAA games – so that technology is no longer as significant an obstacle. Distribution is no longer an obstacle. Discoverability – well, that’s always going to be a problem, but it is far better today than it was in the past – so now I actually have a chance of finding out about some of these awesome little gems. And while there’s no way that Super Meat Boy would compete directly with Medal of Honor: Warfighter, it didn’t need to… courtesy of the “indie” term allowing a wider range of expectations. Both games sold well relative to their expense and team size (although I suspect SMB enjoyed a far more impressive ROI).
“Indie” worked. And I personally don’t think we’re done with it.
Should we define new subsets within indie? Based on what? And how? And what purpose will they serve? People have had a tough enough time coming around to recognizing “indie” versus “mainstream” (especially with such a gray area between them); would further fracturing really make a difference? Would it help smaller and more “niche” indie games get discovered and played? That’s what it’s all about, right?
And if not, what more can we do?
Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 7 Comments to Read